Buddha before Buddhism 3: Ancient City


Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity, Toronto, May 13, 2013

Religion is an attempt to respond to the strain at the centre of every heart. Every child has a religious feeling. Can you remember? Before it was educated out of you. I’m just back from Trinidad where Maria told me this story. One day my dad woke up and went to the front door and put his feet up, he did a handstand that lasted ten minutes. Every day he did his handstand, a little longer each day. No one asked why. But I felt he was understanding something about me by doing it.

We’ve been looking at the Buddha’s teachings and peeling back the layers so we can regain the religious spirit in him, rather than the idealized icon. What the Buddha offers to the strain in the heart is a path. And at the same time there’s an acknowledgment that the strain at the heart is the human condition. There’s no escaping it. This strain offers possibility and responsibility. It’s possible to transform stress. You can practice to uncover your human nature, to uncover who you are.

There was a temple in Thailand recently renovated. They found a five ton plaster Buddha. They dug it up and used it on their altar. Then a decision was made to move the temple, so they moved the Buddha. Then the temple moved a third time, and with great effort, the Buddha was moved again. Finally the temple was moved to Bangkok, and they travelled with the Buddha there, but as they were hoisting it into place, one of the ropes snapped and the Buddha fell and cracked. When they examined the cracks they saw gold shining through. This five ton solid gold Buddha had been plastered over for two hundred years. When the Burmese invaded Thailand this became standard hiding practice. How often do we do this in our own lives? We plaster over the gold.

I asked my teacher Patabhi Joiis about nirodha. The usual translation is cessation, the end of something. What does nirodha mean I asked him? He said, “The end of covering over.” Our practice is to end the covering over, and end the painful confusion that covers our being.

One of the things that is unique about the Buddha’s teachings is how they’ve moved beyond their particular time and place. They’ve entered other countries and come alive. The Zen temples in Japan don’t look like the mindfulness centres in Wisconsin. These teachings can respond to suffering and assume different cultural forms. In order for a tradition to be alive it needs to communicate and converse with what’s happening now in different fields. With the practices of our culture in our time. And it also needs to maintain a conversation with the past. There needs to be a dialogue forwards and backwards.


The Parable of the City (Nagar Sutta)
The Pali word for city is nagar and it means city, settlement, or someone becoming professional. Some of the world’s first cities are forming around the banks of the Ganges at the moment when the Buddha is born. He’s witnessing the first rural to urban shift. Nagar – the professional – the birth of the professional class.

In the Brahmanic culture the upper class were called Brahmins or arya – noble ones. So the Buddha took to calling the people around him arya – noble ones. In other words, being noble isn’t something you’re born into, but you become noble via practice and commitment.

“Suppose, monks, a man wandering through a forest would see an ancient path, an ancient road travelled upon by people in the past. He would follow it and would see an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds and ramparts, a delightful place. Then the man would inform the king or a royal minister: ‘Sire, know that while wandering through the forest I saw an ancient path, an ancient road travelled upon by people in the past. I followed it and saw an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds and ramparts, a delightful place. Renovate that city, Sire!’ Then the king or royal minister would renovate the city, and some time later that city would become successful and prosperous, well populated, filled with people, attained to growth and expansion.”

In Sanskrit the word marga means road or way, in Chinese: dao. The Buddha says that he isn’t discovering anything new, only what people in the past have seen. Oh, the term “Buddha” isn’t used at this time, the word Bud means to be awake, and many people were considered awakened. So here’s the Buddha saying that he travelled a path that many others have walked. What is a path? It’s a clearing, an unobstructed way. If you’re moving through a forest, you know right away whether you’re on the path or when you’re not. You know if you’ve covered over your Buddha with plaster, or whether you haven’t. A path is created by walking on it, if you stop walking along it the path grows over. And the Buddha’s account of the path is social. One doesn’t walk the path alone, it’s something we do as a culture. The entire culture wakes up together.

What does the path lead to? It doesn’t lead to enlightenment, it leads to a city, a city that’s been forgotten. He doesn’t see an excellent rebirth and heaven, he sees aging and death.

“So too monks, I saw the ancient path, the ancient road travelled by the Fully Awakened Ones of the past. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road? It is just this noble eightfold path; that is: right vision, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration. I followed the path and by doing so I have directly known aging and death. Having directly known them I have explained them to the monks, the nuns, the male lay followers, and female lay followers. This good life, monks, has become successful and prosperous, extended, popular, widespread, well proclaimed among devas and humans.”


What does the Buddha find on the path? He finds that all experience arises and passes away in conditions, in a matrix. All of the moods that you had today are part of these conditions, they’re part of a net without holes, and nothing is left out of this net. It’s path nurtured by relationships. Everything on the path is about appropriate relationships.

What does it mean to nurture this new city? What kind of person would nurture a city like this, would build relationships with their kids and parents and mayors in order to create a flourishing sangha and culture? To be engaged is to be on the path. Who is courageous enough to do this? To include other people in their practice. The Buddha was born at a moment when people were moving into cities, forming new cities. He gave most of his teachings just outside cities, many teachings were aimed at these newly urban populations. What is the city? Your body. Maybe the internet is the new city, and everyone has the same last name: hotmail.com.

The eightfold path leads to a new kind of society on earth. The ancient city is a city of this world. It can only be achieved by people working together. The Buddha shows that practice is personal, rooted in one’s deep conviction to wake up. But in order to realize this awakening, it needs to be done in the context of community. This sutta is about the birth of another kind of culture. The word city comes from ‘civitas.’ A new kind of civilization.

And who might live in this new civilization? A new kind of person perhaps, a post-person who has embraced the not-self. How to make our lives into more compelling stories? Perhaps by including others. Could we create a life that resembles the best fiction, novel and open to change, read in different ways by others? The self is made of others.


Ennobling Truth
Knowing this truth makes you noble. The truth itself is not a shining commandment written by a god on stone. It’s not a law to be followed. But by taking action, one can know and realize these four truths in your own life, and when you do, you become noble. And this happens over and over again. In his first teaching, the Buddha taught the four ennobling truths. What did you realize with your great awakening? What did you awaken to? Let me tell you four times: it was the four ennobling truths. 1. This is suffering 2. This is the cause 3. This is the cessation 4. This is the path.

Stephen Batchelor puts it this way:
1. Embrace (fully know dukkha)
2. Let go (let go of craving)
3. Stop.(experience cessation)
4. Act (cultivate a path)


Arya sacca: ennobling truth. The first truth is to fully know dukkha. Dus: dirty or unpleasant. Ka: from the Sanskrit word akash meaning space. Dukkha literally means a dirty or unpleasant space. It refers to a hole in a chariot wheel that dirt gets into, causing the axle to wobble. It also means wound. To fully know dukkha is to fully know your wound. Do you know how you were wounded? Dukkha doesn’t simply mean suffering, it’s stress, pain, dissatisfaction. The second truth: there is a cause of dukkha. The third truth: there is an uncovering. The fourth truth: the eightfold path. Appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration.

KR Norman: Thoughts on Enlightenment
“From the fourth jhiina he gained Bodhi. It is not at all clear what gaining Bodhi means. We are accustomed to the translation “enlightenment” for Bodhi, but this is misleading for two reasons. First, it can be confused with the use of the word to describe the development in European thought and culture in the eighteenth century, and second, it suggests that light is being shed on something, whereas there is no hint of the meaning “light” in the root budh which underlies the word Bodhi. The root means “to wake up, to be awake, to be awakened,” and a Buddha is someone who has been awakened. Besides the ordinary sense of being awakened by something (eg. a noise) it can also mean “awakened to something.”

We are always awakened by something or to something. The look on your face. The light in this room. How can we be awakened to these sounds? How can we rejoice and appreciate our lives? The Buddha went down a road that all of us can go down, that all of us have a tendency to cover over. What did he see? Aging and death, four ennobling truths. Conditioned arising. He didn’t arrive at a celestial city but a city here in this world. Perhaps it’s time to renovate the city of your body, to renovate that shoulder – it used to have such great mobility. How can I wake up this shoulder, so that I can serve others? We feel we’re on the path when we’re in the gold, not the plaster. Enlightenment is a European word for cultural events in the eighteenth century, it implies a vertical transcendence with a distinctly Christian bias. But the path that the Buddha walks reengages the city, digs down beneath the plaster to find the gold, and insists that transcendence is horizontal. It happens through relationship. Let’s let Bill Murray give us an example of horizontal transcendence.

Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and Gilda Radner as Nerds

Bill Murray: “Gilda got married and went away. None of us saw her anymore. There was one good thing: Laraine had a party one night, a great party at her house. And I ended up being the disk jockey. She just had forty-fives, and not that many, so you really had to work the music end of it. There was a collection of like the funniest people in the world at this party. Somehow Sam Kinison sticks in my brain. The whole Monty Python group was there, most of us from the show, a lot of other funny people, and Gilda. Gilda showed up and she’d already had cancer and gone into remission and then had it again, I guess. Anyway she was slim. We hadn’t seen her in a long time. And she started doing, “I’ve got to go,” and she was just going to leave, and I was like, “Going to leave?” It felt like she was going to really leave forever.

So we started carrying her around, in a way that we could only do with her. We carried her up and down the stairs, around the house, repeatedly, for a long time, until I was exhausted. Then Danny did it for a while. Then I did it again. We just kept carrying her; we did it in teams. We kept carrying her around, but like upside down, every which way—over your shoulder and under your arm, carrying her like luggage. And that went on for more than an hour—maybe an hour and a half—just carrying her around and saying, “She’s leaving! This could be it! Now come on, this could be the last time we see her. Gilda’s leaving, and remember that she was very sick—hello?”

We worked all aspects of it, but it started with just, “She’s leaving, I don’t know if you’ve said good-bye to her.” And we said good-bye to the same people ten, twenty times, you know. 

And because these people were really funny, every person we’d drag her up to would just do like five minutes on her, with Gilda upside down in this sort of tortured position, which she absolutely loved. She was laughing so hard we could have lost her right then and there.

It was just one of the best parties I’ve ever been to in my life. I’ll always remember it. It was the last time I saw her.” from Live from New York: an Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live